Letter: May Day and Begbie statue controversies have something in common


What do New Westminster’s May Day and Judge Begbie controversies have in common?

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Historical revisionism - the now-common practice of using present day social perspectives to reinterpret the past, often leading to controversial, negative moral judgments about historical figures and events previously thought to be good. 

Judge Matthew Begbie, revered and respected for over 100 years as a good man, is now recast as morally deficient at minimum and an outright criminal at worst. (With) May Day, once regarded here as the ultimate symbol of decency and honourable civic celebration, the SD40 May Day Task Force now says “...does not positively reflect the district’s values of inclusion and diversity.” 

These two issues have polarized New Westminster, as traditionalists and reformers duke it out. 

New interpretations of history are often good, such as the incredible work done revisiting the tragic legacy of residential schools and their devastating impact on Canadian Indigenous people. History can be written with biases that paper over prejudice and injustice done to disadvantaged groups. Reformers are right to dig into the past to find new stories and facts that give us better perspectives.

Some revisionism, however, is fueled by the entrenched ideological beliefs of the reformers, zealous to bring about change in the present by undermining what they see as misplaced reverence for past persons and events.

Marxist reformers seek to frame history as class warfare; the rich capitalists continually dominating and exploiting the poor. Social justice reformers frame history as a war of the races, where ethnic groups clash in a never-ending struggle for control. Some feminist reformers seek to expose gender discrimination, typically portraying the powerful white men of history as the primary actors waging brutal and repressive campaigns to achieve patriarchal dominance.   

One problem with ideological revisionism is the risk of “reimagining” history in a way that omits or changes facts to achieve what reformers see as “the greater good,” e.g., racial and gender equality. For example, rather than focussing rigorously on what Judge Begbie did or did not do in his lifetime to deserve posthumous negative moral pronouncements, the New Westminster city council discussion focused extensively on what Begbie “represented.” As a powerful white man wielding capitalist imperial power, Begbie’s statue was no doubt blasphemous to certain ideologues.

May Day, with its “anachronistic core notions of stereotypical gender roles” (SD40 May Day Task Force Report), is similarly in the crosshairs of feminist and Marxist revision. What has traditionally been seen as an innocent children’s festival evoking nostalgia for Britain and reverence for the monarchy, is being recast as a purpose-built, “made-in-New Westminster” strategy for advancing white patriarchal dominance in furtherance of the capitalist, colonialist, imperialist enterprise.

Considering the foregoing, it is evident that New Westminster’s Judge Begbie and May Day conversations are not unique. They are part of a global discussion about how humanity sees itself in the mirror of the past. In the face of modern ideological passions, instant global communications, and the constant flux of change, the landscape for cultural heritage preservation has never been so perilous.

Owing to some of the downsides of globalization, in 2003, UNESCO proclaimed its Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (e.g. festivals, dances, costumes, traditions, rituals, artistry, craft, and even cooking), now signed by 178 countries. A key issue addressed by the convention is the growing tendency to justify damaging or ending cultural heritage on the pretext of inclusion and diversity.

UNESCO’s framework also emphasizes that traditions change over time. Careful consideration and community engagement can ensure that valuable heritage is retained and supported.

So what are we to do about May Day in New Westminster?

In search of insight on festivals, I found this definition in my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions: “Festivals are celebrations, usually having a ritualized character. Festivals arise from the fact that ‘no man is an island,’ or more exactly, from the fact that no one can live in isolation on an island in the midst of life: we are selves in a field of selves, requiring each other for the very process of life. Festivals give communal expression to the meaning of that process, in a shared affirmation of value and purpose.” 

This vision of festival is one I believe everyone can get behind, and as New Westminster’s 150th May Day (takes place), I am hopeful it will bring our city together like never before.

David Brett, New Westminster


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